Charlene Wang, author, founder of LivingOS, and previously a product manager at Google, discusses parental and cultural expectations — and why our kids might need to break free from some of them on their path toward success.

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We want our student problem solvers to be able to achieve their wildest dreams. But when parents and educators act as if there is a fixed end state to maximizing potential, those dreams can be smothered in the process.

Striking the right balance between encouragement and pushing a student too far can be difficult. Knowing how requires a firm understanding of a student’s desires, which can be overshadowed by other things — like the parent’s own desires — if you're not careful.

In this episode, Charlene Wang, author, founder of LivingOS, and previously a product manager at Google, discusses the academic expectations we have for our students and where to draw the line.

Spoken and Unspoken Expectations for Students

Students are given many spoken and unspoken expectations during their upbringing that influence the future problem solver they will become. For Charlene, the spoken expectation was to always do her best. Whether that was playing the piano, reading a book, or taking a class, there was always some pressure in any endeavor she took on. The unspoken expectation, however, was to dream really big. No matter what the endeavor, pursue it if it will make her happy. 

Only through a balance of spoken and unspoken expectations can a student achieve what they want to. If either expectation starts to become more important than the other, that’s when problems begin to arise. 

Pushing Students Past Initial Difficulty

It’s a common misguided belief that potential can be “maximized,” Charlene says, as if there was a known fixed end state. This can lead parents and educators to push their students too far in pursuit of this assumed end state. 

The truth is we don’t really know how far a particular student can really go. While it’s important for students to always try their best in whatever path they take, trudging through a lesson they don't enjoy for months won’t be beneficial. Ultimately, the student will tell the parent or educator who they want to be. 

Mindset Shift for Parents

It’s very important for a parent or educator to check their motivations when it comes to why they’re asking their student to pursue something. Some will look at personal regrets and insert the desire to accomplish that goal into the student’s path. 

If the student is truly pursuing what is important to them, but they are objectively giving up too soon, try this: Challenge your student to keep going until the end of the month before moving on to a new task. 

This strategy won’t burden them with the exhaustion of continuing to pursue a task that isn’t important to them, but it does help build resilience. Charlene adds that, oftentimes, when the kids actually overcome the task, they don't want to give up anymore.

The most you can be for your student is a guide — someone to answer questions and catch them when they fall. But you don’t want to hold their hand too much or pre-select their path. 

Learning as a Responsibility

Convincing a student to keep learning a task they’re uninterested in, however, isn’t always as easy as asking them to finish out the month. In certain situations, that student doesn’t want to spend one minute longer on an assignment. Perhaps it doesn’t interest them and they cannot see any future where they’ll need the information. 

The parent or educator knows that if the student gives up now, they may make a habit of giving up on every task when it becomes too difficult or uninteresting. So, it’s important for the student to understand that learning is a responsibility first. Try explaining to them that learning is a self-investment that will impact their personal future — not something to be compared with a fun activity like playing video games. 

Next Steps Advice for Parents

For those looking to support their students but not force them into a path they don’t want to pursue, Charlene shares the following: Help the student set a goal but be okay with whatever the path looks like to get there. 

When you hit a milestone, be open to taking a break; or if it’s clear that a teacher isn’t a good fit for your student, make the change. Let your students take control of their own path and see how far they can really go.  

Guest Links 

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Episode Transcript

Charlene Wang Q&A [2:10]

Eric Olsen: On today's episode, Charlene Wang, author, founder at Living OS, and previously, product manager at Google, joins the podcast to talk about parental and cultural expectations, as well as why our kids might need to break free from some of them on their path towards success.

In your book, Model Breakers, you write about, both parental and cultural expectations, as well as the need to sometimes break away from them. Talk about, both the spoken and unspoken expectations you were raised with as a kid.

Charlene Wang: That's a great question. And growing up, the spoken one is, do your best, pursue excellence in anything you do, anything you choose to do, whether it's playing the piano, reading a book, taking a class, all that. There's some pressure that comes along with that. But the unspoken one is actually really motivating. It is to dream really, really big. There is a saying my mom loves to repeat whenever there is a dinner gathering as the sky is her limit. She wants me to make my own choice, to take care of my responsibilities, and to set a goal, and be brave enough to do whatever it takes to go there. And I think these two goes hand in hand because you need that grit to do your best, and also, that north star to know where you're going.

Setting end-state expectations vs. removing barriers for student success [3:38]

Eric Olsen: Yeah. I love that concept of the north star. And we've had a couple guests that have challenged me on this concept of the difference between having kids try to maximize their potential as if there is a known, fixed end state. And the way your mother described it, which is, blue sky limit. I want you to have all options available to you, and that there is a subtle difference between even the language that we use to describe both those options.

Charlene Wang: Yeah. And I think the inherent, the underlying mindset is we don't know. There is a lot of experiments going on. We don't know what the student, what our kids are best at. So we want them to try their best and see how far they can go because often they'll surprise us in ways we couldn't expect.

When is it healthy to push our kids? [4:25]

Eric Olsen: For parents who have high or even specific expectations for what success [00:04:30] looks like for their kids, is there a right balance of pushing our children past their initial friction point of difficulty versus continually pushing them hard towards things that they're wholly disinterested in?

Charlene Wang: Both ways will make kids tired of learning, which is what we don't want to see at the end of the day. For the kids where parents push their kids, it's often because they went through the challenge themselves, potentially when they were growing up. They want to learn how to speak a certain language, and then they gave up, and then they never learned the language afterwards. So there's that regret. They wish they could have maybe pushed harder or their parents could have pushed them harder back then. And that's why they're inserting that back now. But the thing is, the kids are not you. You don't want to make them fulfill your dream because that's just not how human and parenting works. It doesn't work well at scale.

The other part is you want to make sure they're trying, they have given their best shot. So you want to make sure they really look into the potential. And the key here is really to see and prevent those hurdles from happening. If you feel like they may be giving up, try to set up a new challenge and say, "Hey, maybe this is a really tough month, but if you get to the end of the month, you can decide whether you want to keep going or not." So having those stretch goal and letting them overcome that is going to build their resilience. And often time, when the kids actually overcome that, they don't want to give up anymore.

Are we really just trying to create second “me’s”? [6:14]

Eric Olsen: That's funny. I had a conversation with a former colleague when my daughter was super, super young, and she gave some half back comment to me about, "Well, I mean, you don't want her to become just like you." And I had realized, "Oh, I kind of did." I think that's what I thought about. I got a lot of self-love maybe a little narcissism baked in there, but this concept of, I want my kid to be an idyllic version of me or a more perfect version of me versus making sure that they understand and can learn and embrace who they really are.

Charlene Wang: Yeah. And I think that's the inherent mindset shift. When parents realize that, "Oh, wow. I was trying to make a second me," that sometimes shock them a little bit. They're like, "Do I? Am I good enough?" and it goes back to the self-awareness piece about, "Who do I want my kids to be?" And the solution often comes down to, "I'm not the one to choose. They will tell me who they want to be. And I'm providing all the resources, the network, the education to help them find their own answer. And I'll be their guide. I will be there to answer questions if they have any, to catch when they fall, but I wouldn't be there to hold their hands and tell them where to go."

Eric Olsen: Yeah. Let's talk about hand holding and this idea of directing opportunities for them, as well as them embracing and finding their own passions. Let's talk about school versus after school. And when you believe those after school academic programs are a great option for certain kids.

Charlene Wang: I grew up going to a lot of after school because my parents are both really busy. They're both doctors, so it's either going to my grandma's house, which is an hour away or going to after school that is 10 minutes away. It was a good childcare in retrospect, and I actually love many of them. I made a lot of friends. I learned a lot of things, but what I realized is there's a point when I just got bored because I often have a lot of things I know what to do. I want to read that book. I want to go to that place. And the after school became a structure that limited my freedom in a sense. So what I realized is after school is really good for people who may not be great at time management yet. They may not know when to do their homework, when to try something else. They may not have developed their perspective yet. So after school is almost this trial period where there is a proposed curriculum that has been vetted by many other kids and may work for you. So it's similar to, "Should I read a syllabus, or should I go into elaborate and explore my own world?"

Is quitting something ever ok? [8:54]

Eric Olsen: Let's talk about when we're misaligned from our kids, we're at this impasse. We're convinced that we know what's best for them. They're convinced they're entirely disinterested in this particular extracurricular activity that I'm pushing so hard for. Should we allow for a break? Do we try to delay the decision and keep the status quo? When is quitting okay? How do we address that challenge?

Charlene Wang: It's really hard to know, but it really comes into two. Should we push it? Should we not push it? For the case when we push it, they will eventually feel bored, tired, even resentful. They may not even like the subjects, the parents, the teachers anymore, and that may even leave some trauma down the road. So pushing it through obviously is not the smartest approach. But not pushing it, they will stop here. They will no longer improve, and they may never learn to... They will always quit when these get hard. So the key there is to avoid that from happening, and to let the kids know that they're not here to learn for interest. Learning is not for fun. Well, learning can be fun, but you're here to learn because you're here to develop your skillset. Is not playing. There is responsibility in there. There is reward that comes with it.

And what we are telling them is, "You are showing up because you're investing in yourself." They may not know what this means, but you can tell it that this is not a video game. You cannot just turn it off. There is going to be impact on how your future learning will be, and I want to help you get through there. So it's that intermediate milestone. And having some middle ground, saying that, "Okay, you want to quit piano? Let's play this one song. And if you do this well, you can quit." and then that goes back to, well, if they learn it, they may know when to quit because they feel that sense of achievement now. So it's having that to meet them where they're at and to take them to the next step that they may not be willing to go themselves.

Eric Olsen: Charlene, as we wrap up today, let's learn off your curve. Let's learn off the curve of all the families that you interviewed for Model Breakers. Leave us with some next steps advice for parents who grew up under, both vocal and perhaps unspoken expectations for their lives. As we try to, both keep the good things that we are raised with as well as do better with this next generation, what expectations are healthy to project and communicate with our kids?

Charlene Wang: Having a goal. Having a goal of what you want to do and what you want to be, but not forcing them to stick with the outcome. So it's knowing where you want to go, but being okay with how that path is. And part of that is maybe taking a break when you hit a milestone. Maybe you can change a teacher when you realize that you learned most of the things you could, or this is not a fit. So it's being flexible with the path to get to where they want to be, and co-creating that path together.

Enroll in AoPS Academy’s Math and Language Arts Courses This Academic Year [12:10]

Eric Olsen: Yeah. So what does co-creating that path look like this fall? Because our academic year, math and language arts classes at AoPS Academy are the perfect way to make sure your student is maxing out their challenge potential. Whether you're near our 12 physical learning centers across the country, or watch the flexibility of learning online from our AoPS Academy: Virtual Campus, our after school and weekend courses are a flexible way to make sure your students are getting the deep problem solving skill set they deserve.  Visit AoPS Academy Math & Language Arts Courses today to learn more and find a time that works for your family.

Charlene Wang Rapid Fire [12:50]

Eric Olsen: It's now time for our rapid fire segment called Problem Solved where we ask the guest to solve incredibly complex and difficult education issues in single soundbites. Charlene, what's one thing about K-12 education you wish you could snap your fingers and problem solved, it's fixed?

Charlene Wang: I will change the learning journey. Usually, they have a lot of time, very happy in elementary school, and then they begin to stay up late in middle school, and stay even later in high school, a lot along college. If I could change one thing, it is how can we change the learning plan so they have more challenges early on? Maybe they learn algebra in elementary school and other things so they can build the muscle when it's time to take their SATs and other college exams.

Eric Olsen: Making the on-ramps come earlier is something that we're missionly focused on here at Art of Problem Solving. If you could go back and give your kid-self advice on their educational journey, what would it be?

Charlene Wang: Set a high goal, try your best, but accept whatever result you get.

Eric Olsen: What part of education do you think or hope looks the most different 10 years from now?

Charlene Wang: Moral education. Right now, that is pretty much outsourced to the institutions, the neighborhood, the community, or even the parents. I wish that is in the curriculum where we teach their kids.

Eric Olsen: And what’s your best advice for parents looking to raise future problem solvers? 

Charlene Wang: Give them options, help them to make decisions, and let them know it's their own decision, and they have to take responsibility for that.

Eric Olsen: And listeners, we'd love to hear your answers as well. So email us at podcast@aops.com with your best advice for raising future problem solvers. And we'll read our favorites on future episodes.

Charlene, thanks so much for joining us today.

Charlene Wang: Thank you, Eric. A pleasure, always.

Episode Summary & Conclusion [14:45]

Eric Olsen: Do I catch myself pushing my kids in certain areas I wish I had been pushed harder in to prevent them from having some of the gaps I wish I didn't have as an adult? Do I catch myself trying to create better versions of myself in my kids? No, I, myself am a perfect parent with no weird flaws, but I hope this episode was helpful for the rest of y'all because I really loved Charlene's thoughts on the power of expectations, and why pushing our kids rarely works the way we think it might. That even if it could work, if we could control their every step, we just don't know yet what they're going to be great at or passionate about. So let's walk alongside them, talking out loud with them, sharing what we can from our own experience as they carve their own journey. And may you continue your journey alongside us raising the great problem solvers of the next generation.

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